Forgiveness, No Postage Required

Jesus’ teaching oppressed and confused mighty minds; scholarly Jews who adhered closely to Mosaic law wrestled unsuccessfully with parables. Yet, somehow, he reached the disenfranchised; the uneducated.  His parables appealed to dissolute, Gentile, and individuals who did not profess faith in the God of Israel. How did Jesus convey the freedom that comes from forgiveness?

Enigmatic Messiah

Jesus said to his disciples ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” (Luke 8:10 ESV)

In the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3:6, Eve found the promise of wisdom so alluring that she fell for Satan’s lies: ‘when the woman saw that the tree […] was to be desired to make one wise’ she ate of the fruit and her eyes ‘were opened.’ (ESV) Let’s not mistake this moment for one of enlightenment, however; original sin was the first cause for repentance; the first time God would have to forgive his people. The idea was so radical, so new, they didn’t even admit their sin out loud but demonstrated a need for covering by trying to hide from God. Being smart didn’t free them; it ensnared them into a cycle of sin and the necessity of ‘selichah’.

Greek or Hebrew Forgiveness?

You’re asking yourself ‘what is selichah’ and that’s only natural, unless you went to bible college recently in which case pay attention in class. Here’s a limited study of ancient languages – REALLY limited (I did not go to bible college). Jesus spoke in Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew, so his word for ‘forgiveness’ was something like ‘selichah’ (Hebrew according to Strong’s Concordance at Biblehub.com). Although the Israelites sought forgiveness for sins, there was no way pre-Jesus to secure pardon except by acts of regular sacrifice to God Almighty and the mediation of priests. Jesus taught a new concept to both Jews and Gentiles: getting rid of sin entirely instead of having to repeat a ritual in order to secure forgiveness. If Jesus was telling the truth, we could enjoy perfect union with God. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2Cor 5:21, ESV)

See this concept from Luke’s eyes. He was writing in Greek which does not always line up directly with Hebrew. At least, the bridge between Greek and Hebrew translations of ‘forgiveness’ is not a straightforward one. The Greek is ‘aphiémi’ which means ‘to send away’ (Strong’s Concordance, Biblehub.com). Luke’s Gospel gave new meaning to a word which, by Christ’s time, was less about being freed than about adopting more rules and feelings of guilt. ‘Selichah’ was a burdensome, unattainable concept thanks to the Pharisees. Luke expresses a transformed understanding of what it means to give up not the responsibility but the burden of sin. Jesus depicts a time when the consequences of Genesis 3 are reversed; before ‘the Lord God sent [them] out from the Garden of Eden.’ With forgiveness, we send away sin, and God lets us back into his presence.

Three Learning Styles

Getting rid of sin is a tough idea to grasp or to accept, since a lot of people prefer to carry sin and shame on their backs and live in the wilderness of guilt or unforgiveness. Words just aren’t enough to convey a radical new concept to every learner, especially when the old idea is deeply ingrained.

                                             I’m too bad.

                                             What he did –  he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

                                             I’ll get my act together first, then God might forgive me.

I’ve heard it all and even thought the first one, but Jesus got through to my learning style. The three learning styles are hearing, doing, and seeing. Most of us learn best from a combination of two or all three of these methods (I’m visual-kinesthetic, so give me a car, a tire, all the requisite equipment, and I will learn how to handle a puncture). Jesus’ teaching was energetic and varied; he was the ideal instructor, using all three methods for all types of learners. He deconstructed the notion of forgiveness by breaking it down into visual, visceral components. What did ‘selichah’ look, feel, or sound like compared with ‘aphiémi’?

Moving Pictures

Christ created striking, unforgettable analogies around the theme of forgiveness by releasing people from bondage to mental, physical, or spiritual slavery. A woman who had bled daily for years, unable to participate fully in society, was released to rejoin community. Physical healing echoed her spiritual relief. All she did was reach out to Christ, but that action demonstrated that she knew where to look. Imagine if she had gotten it wrong and Jesus was not the promised Messiah after all? She took a risk simply mingling with the crowd and touching Jesus’ clothing because her condition rendered her unclean; untouchable. After Jesus’ merciful miracle, she could send her old life away.

A demon-infested man inhabited a graveyard. His whole body and his voice were overpowered by Legion, but he regained both thanks to Jesus. The man and the Son of man held a conversation among tombstones where he gained life, a new identity. He could put away his old self, his shame, and rejoin community – like the woman above – instead of haunting that world from the fringes, still breathing yet without life.

Community Centre

In both cases, slavery to bodily and mental torture was over. These two people were among the many publicly rescued from visible chains by Christ. When lepers and paralytics and blind people were healed before numerous witnesses, spectators saw individuals willing to declare their need for help then recognizing whom they must ask for freedom. Christ showed his power and his purpose by sending away impediment which amounted to physical boundaries between the afflicted and their communities.

Unlike many North Americans who embrace privacy, earlier generations (and many cultures around the world today) found security and significance in community. Exclusion from closeness with people signalled shame, unworthiness, and frequently condemned men and women to lives of poverty and pain. Likewise, unrepented sin keeps us apart from God. We lose community with him and stop feeling the benefits of his love for us until we ask Christ into our lives. From the day of salvation onwards, God calls a child back to the family of faith and into a real community which started with the corporeal form of his Son Jesus Christ. Benefits of becoming part of the Holy Trinity by forgiveness through the Messiah include feeling loved and wanted by the only one whose opinions matter and safely set apart for eternal life with him.

Saying ‘I need help’ when we are physically sick makes sense to us, but understanding why we should repent of sin and ask for help is harder, so Jesus painted pictures.  Jesus’ turned forgiveness of sins into a picture everyone could relate to.

Today’s reader perhaps says ‘that must have been cray-cray hard two thousand years ago, but it doesn’t, like, relate to my circumstances right now.’ Hmm…what is the first thing a person often does when confronted with his or her own sinfulness? I know what I do – isolate, quarantine myself from friends and family who might see my sin. The contemporary reader can still relate to a deep need to send away sin and embrace forgiveness from the Father in order to experience communion with Him, the Son, and the Spirit.

Sending Away for Forgiveness

When I was a kid, we used to eat sugary cereal from boxes advertising gifts we could send away for by mail. Imagine: postage stamps, envelopes, archaic stuff. We sent box-tops away and would receive items in the mail which never measured up to our initial excitement. Still, we were taught to accept anything free as a gift and be thankful, even if it was ultimately disappointing. Like going trick-or-treating and receiving apples.

Why is it so hard to send away the burdens of our sin, laying them at Christ’s feet, and accept the free gift of aphiémi? Do we imagine the gift will disappoint? Forgiveness will feel anticlimactic if we don’t acknowledge our deep need for it or its cost. Or, one might suspect a catch. There is no catch, but accepting Christ means you will be changed. I was changed – letting go of guilt and shame made room to think about topics besides my guilt and shame and why I wasn’t good enough for God. I never knew there was so much ‘I’ in ‘shame’ until Christ took that from me.

Asking forgiveness appears to be weakness in the eyes of society because we wouldn’t have to carry our punishment anymore. Self-rebuke seems right, as though carrying this burden makes up for what we did or should have done; said or should have said. Does being perpetually angry at myself or someone else result in any benefits? Anger can be righteous, but ‘sinful anger does not bear redemptive fruit. Rather, it leaves us with a grey, burned-over barrenness of exasperated frustration.’*** I recognize many people I have loved in this description. The cost of self-hatred multiplied and led to more and more sin.

Just send it away. That’s what the Gospel teaches. The erases the red numbers in our personal ledgers, but there are no numbers in black on the other side either. The entire page is ripped up and turned into bran cereal (or at least I think that’s what bran cereal is made from). Yeah, the price was high. I swallow a lump down every time I think about what God did for me, but it’s done, and I can’t pretend the cross was for someone else. I’m sending away for that grace, no postage required.

*http://www.chaimbentorah.com/2017/03/aramaic-word-study-forgiveness-%D7%A9%D7%81%D7%91%D7%A7/

**definitions from Hebrew and Greek from Strong’s Concordance at Biblehub.com *** Jon Bloom, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-to-kill-sinful-anger